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The Ancient Incas and the Collectivist State

Examples of government control over social and economic life are as old as recorded history, and they always have features that are universal in their perverse effects regardless of time or place. One of the most famous of these collectivist episodes was that of the Incas and their empire in South America.

The Inca Empire emerged out of a small tribe in the Peruvian mountains in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Theirs was a military theocracy. The Inca kings rationalized their brutal rule on the basis of a myth that the Sun god, Inti, took pity on the people in those mountains and sent them his son and other relatives to teach them how to build homes and how to manufacture rudimentary products of everyday life. The later Inca rulers then claimed that they were the descendants of these divine beings and therefore were ordained to command and control all those who came under their power and authority

The Inca Empire of Conquest and Collectivism

The fourteenth and especially the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries saw the expansion of the Incas into a great imperial power with control over a territory that ran along the west coast of South America and included much of present-day Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and parts of Argentina and Colombia. The Incas were brought down in the 1530s by the Spanish conquest under the leadership of Francisco Pizarro.

The Inca kings, asserting to be both sons and priests of the Sun god, held mastery of all the people and property in his domains. And like most socialist systems throughout history they combined both privilege and egalitarianism. When the invading Spaniards entered the Inca capital of Cuzco, they were amazed by the grandeur of the palaces, temples, and homes of the Inca elite, as well as the system of aqueducts and paved roads.

But having an economy based on slave labor, there had been few incentives or profitable gains from the development of machines and tools to raise the productivity of the work force or reduce the amount of labor needed to perform the tasks of farming and manufacturing. Methods of production were generally primitively labor-intensive. Thus, the Spaniards, in comparison, were far better equipped with more advanced instruments of war to defeat the Incas.

The Inca Elite and the “Communism” of the Common People

The Inca society was rigidly constructed along hierarchical lines of power and privilege. The Incan ruling class, below the Inca Sun-god king, provided the membership for the bureaucratic administrators, the military officer corps, the priests and scholars. Beneath them were the Inca peasants, herdsmen and artisans; they also were used to settle newly conquered lands to assure Incan dominance over the defeated populations. And below them were the slaves, which according to Inca legend had originally been condemned to death, but out of mercy were reprieved from extermination to be lowly laborers in perpetual bondage.

The Inca rulers imposed on almost all in society a compulsory equalitarianism in virtually all things. In The Socialism Phenomena (1980), the Soviet-era dissident, Igor Shafarevich, (1923–2017) explained:

The complete subjugation of life to the prescriptions of the law and to officialdom led to extraordinary standardization: identical clothing, identical houses, identical roads. ... As a result of this spirit of standardization, anything the least bit different was looked upon as dangerous and hostile, whether it was the birth of twins or the discovery of a strangely shaped rock. Such things were believed to be manifestations of evil forces hostile to society.

To what extent is it possible to call the Inca state socialist? ... Socialist principles were clearly expressed in the structure of the Inca state: the almost complete absence of private property, in particular of private land; absence of money and trade; the complete elimination of private initiative from all economic activities; detailed regulation of private life; marriage by official decrees; state distribution of wives and concubines.

The Rigid and Detailed Planning of Everyday Life

An especially detailed description of the nature and workings of the Inca state is found in the classic work, A Socialist Empire: The Incas of Peru (1927), by the French economist and historian Louis Baudin (1887–1964). The Incas ruled through a cruel and pervasive system of command and control over everyday life. Baudin explained:

Every socialist system must rest upon a powerful bureaucratic administration. In the Inca Empire, as soon as a province was conquered, its population would be organized on a hierarchical basis, and the [imperial] officials would immediately set to work. ... They were in general in charge of the preparation of the statistical tables, the requisitioning of the supplies and provisions needed by their group [over whom they ruled] (seeds, staple foods, wool, etc.), the distribution of the production of the products obtained, the solicitation of assistance and relief in case of need, the supervision of the conduct of their inferiors, and the rendering of complete reports and accounts to their superiors. These operations were facilitated by the fact that those under their supervision were obliged to admit them to their homes at any moment, and allow them to inspect everything in their homes, down to the cooking utensils, and even to eat with the doors open ...

The Inca bureaucracy cast its net over all those that it ruled and soon transformed them into docile and obedient subjects through a “slow and gradual absorption of the individual into the state ... until it brought about the loss of personality. Man was made for the state, and not the state for the man,” Baudin said. The Incas tried to banish “the two great causes of popular disaffection, poverty and idleness. ... But by the same token, they dried up the two springs of progress, initiative and provident concern for the future.” The Inca government did all the thinking and planning for their subjects, with the result that there was a “stagnation of commerce ... lack of vitality and the absence of originality in the arts, dogmatism in science, and the rareness of even the simplest inventions.”

The Inca Welfare State and Human Inertia

This inertia was fostered through the institutions of the welfare state. “As for the provident concern for the future,” Baudin asked,“ how could that have been developed among a people whose public granaries were crammed with provisions and whose public officials were authorized to distribute them in case of need? There was never a need to think beyond the necessities of the moment.”

In addition, the Inca welfare state undermined the motive for charity and any personal sense of responsibility for family or community:

But what is even more serious is that the substitution of the state for the individual in the economic domain destroyed the spirit of charity. The native Peruvian, expecting the state to do everything, no longer had to concern himself with his fellow man and had to come to his aid only if required by law. The members of a community were compelled to work on the land for the benefit of those who were incapacitated; but when this task had been performed, they were free from all further obligations. They had to help their neighbors if ordered to do so by their chiefs, but they were obliged to do nothing on their own initiative. That is why, by the time of the Spanish conquest, the most elementary humanitarian feelings were in danger of disappearing entirely.

Life was also reduced to a joyless existence of uniformity, security, and order that was imposed and guaranteed by the Inca bureaucracy. Baudin tried to answer the question: Was the average person happy under the rule of the Incan kings?

He labored contently for a master whom he held to be divine. He had only to obey, without going to the trouble of thinking. If his horizon was limited, he was unaware of it, since he knew no other; and if he could not raise himself socially, he in no way suffered on that account, for he did not conceive that such a rise was possible. His life followed its peaceful course, its monotony broken by periodic holiday festivals and by such events as marriages, military service, and compulsory labor service, all in strict accordance with regulations. The Indian had his joys and sorrows at fixed dates. Only illness and death persisted in escaping government regulation. It was a negative kind of happiness, with a few adversities and a few great joys. The empire produced what D’Argenson called the “menagerie of happy men.” ... In the Inca state only the members of the ruling class and more especially the chief, could live a full life; outside of him and his family, men were no longer men, but cogs in the economic machine or figures in the official statistics.

It is for this reason that in his own interpretation of the Incas, Igor Shafarevich concluded that, “The Inca state seems to have been one of the fullest incarnations of socialist ideals in human history.”

In our own time the plague of government control has been no different. The totalitarian collectivist states of the twentieth century certainly matched in intensity and pervasiveness the comprehensively planned society of the ancient Incas. The “democratic” collectivism under which we live in the twenty-first century no less has its marks of similarity.

Our Freedom Weakened under Political Paternalism

Those who man the regulatory agencies in modern society supervise and oversee many, if not most, of our economic affairs from the processes of production to the stage at which we actually use the goods that are manufactured.

They pry into and then proceed to regulate our personal and family affairs. They take responsibility for our welfare and our happiness, and try to guard us against all the trials and tribulations of everyday life. They watch over our schooling, care for us when we are ill, find work for us if we are unemployed, and pay us when we are without a job. They are concerned with our mental health, and police what we ingest. They take an interest in the things we read and the amusements and leisure activities we indulge in.

One freedom after another has been incrementally abridged, weakened, and then taken away with the government now responsible for what had previously been in the domain of the individual and his own decision-making.

But in this, too, the process has been no different from what occurred under the Incas. Louis Baudin pointed out,

The poison [of growing political paternalism] was not given to the Indians in massive doses that would have provoked a reaction, but was administered drop by drop, until it brought about the loss of personality. ... And whoever has formed the habit of passive obedience ends by being no longer able to act for himself and comes to love the yoke that is laid upon him. Nothing is easier than to obey a master who is perhaps exacting, but who rules over all the details of life, assures one’s daily bread, and makes it possible to banish all concern from the mind.

In place of a king ruling in the name of a divine Sun god we have an arrogant intellectual and political “progressive” elite claiming to know what is the “right side of history” to which mankind under their guidance should be moving. In place of privileged Inca princes and priests fattened at the expense of slaves and obedient Inca commoners, we have networks of special interest groups using the power of political plunder to feed off the productive members of society. Instead of collectivized land and imposed compulsory work as under the Incas, we have a regulatory spider’s web of controls and commands and prohibitions constraining and dictating how each of us may go about our lives with the private property we supposedly own, but which has been increasingly placed at the decision-making discretion of those who administer the interventionist state.

Individual Self-Interest Denied, Collective Altruistic Sacrifice Required

The political planners and plunderers of today, like the ancient Inca collectivists of five hundred years ago, impose their rule and control through two essential means. As the French classical liberal economist, Yves Guyot (1843–1928), once observed: through “the suppression of private interest as the motive of human actions, and the substitution of altruism” as the rationale for men’s sacrifices and their loss of freedom to be compelled to serve the collective.

Many, if not most, modern day “progressives” and “democratic socialists” would, of course, deny any family resemblance to the cruelty, absolutism, and imperialist aggression of the Incas and their collectivist empire. Yet, the essence of the Inca system and the institutional prerequisites for achieving the goals of the social engineers nowadays remain essentially the same.

They both require the subservience of the individual and his life — with his dreams, desires, hopes and peaceful ambitions — to the dictates of others who possess the power of coercion to make him bend and obey the compulsory orders of the political authority. They both require the abrogation of an individual’s right to peacefully acquire and employ property as he thinks best to further his own interests and in free market associations with others.

They both require the presumption that the asserted interests of the group, collective or tribe come before and are superior to the purposes and goals of any one individual. The individual human being is made to seem small, far less than fully consequential, in comparison to the social mass whose imaginary interests come before his.

And in both the individual is indoctrinated with the belief that he must sacrifice for that presumed “greater good,” and about which he should feel guilty if he fails to surrender himself to the “general welfare.” Among the ancient Incas some were called upon to yield to their own execution as human sacrifices to placate the wishes and demands of the Sun god. In the modern social welfare state, individuals are expected to give up their personal choices to fully live, act and interact as they peacefully would want, while others in military service are sometimes required to sacrifice their lives in the name of the “national interest.”

Fortunately, the human spirit is not as easily and permanently broken as the Incas believed they had succeeded in doing in their empire centuries ago, or the modern collectivists continue to try today. There is something also inside the individual that cherishes self-expression and retains the wish to be free. This inner force, if awakened, assures that liberty will never be completely extinguished.

Originally published by the Future of Freedom Foundation. 

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